Rich Strike now has a choice to make

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Sometime around 2:30 a.m. Sunday morning, about seven hours after his horse suffered the biggest Kentucky Derby upset in a century, Eric Reed stretched out on his bed about last. But sleep on Sunday was as elusive as his horse Rich Strike had been on Saturday.

Reed, who has trained Rich Strike since last September, could not stop running through his mind, even after seeing him several times on the screens at Churchill Downs and, later, at home with friends who had waited well past midnight for him. to return Each time, Rich Strike jumps and weaves through traffic, comes literally from the back of the pack, slides through 17 other horses like mercury, then sees the light of day and cut inside, going over the two favorites with just a few yards to spare. .

Reed recalled embracing his father Herb, a horse training legend, as the horses came down the stretch, yelling, “My God, Dad, we’re going to win the Derby!” He choked at the thought of it, and he got up. Sleep would not come that night, and after another battery of celebrations and interviews, Reed would only get an hour or two on Sunday night.

The weekend was all about celebrating Rich Strike’s achievements. Now, it’s time for Reed to think about the encore.

“We want to be a part of history,” Reed says. “When we won the Derby, we had to stop and look at the whole picture. It is not as simple as it once was. We have to do what’s best for Richie.”

The Kentucky Derby is the first jewel in the horses’ Triple Crown, and the second two are quickly following. Less than two weeks from now, the Preakness Stakes will be held at Pimlico Downs in Maryland, and three weeks later, the Belmont Stakes in New York will complete the trifecta.

However, booking an elite horse racing slate is not as simple as loading it into the trailer and moving east.

“The Belmont is the most realistic race to win next,” Reed says. “The Preakness has tighter turns and a shorter distance [1 3/16 miles versus 1 ½ miles]. Belmont has big, wide efforts, and we won’t have to go past 19 horses.”

Belmont is such a perfect race for Rich Strike, in fact, that Reed and owner Rick Dawson had been eyeing the June race all along. They planned to have five weeks between Rich Strike’s start – the Derby and the Belmont Stakes – and putting the Preakness in there adds a new layer of complexity.

“It’s not that we can’t compete,” Reed says, “It’s that it burns [a chance at winning] Belmont at all?” The risk of injury, the risk of overtraining, the risk of a poor finish…

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY - MAY 07: Trainer Eric Reed holds the trophy after Rich Strike won the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 07, 2022 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY – MAY 07: Trainer Eric Reed holds the trophy after Rich Strike won the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 07, 2022 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Reed and Dawson will watch Rich Strike’s workouts this week and make the call, possibly sometime on Thursday.

It’s the kind of nice problem that Reed couldn’t have imagined even as late as Friday morning. In a story that already has the makings of a legend, Reed and his team were preparing to send Rich Strike to New York to train for this weekend’s Peter Pan Stakes. the Belmont. It was apparently going to be a frustrating end to a week where the horse had run exceptionally well in training sessions.

“I thought how I hate to train a horse so well and wait another week,” Reed recalls. “We were going to do Peter Pan, and then it would be a month for the Belmont. “

But literally at the last minute, Ethereal Road scraped and made way for Rich Strike, one of those little moments that are crucial in hindsight.

This was one of the many moments in Reed’s career that had to happen at that exact moment, just like that.

Take, for example, the moment Reed and Dawson first connect through a mutual friend. Dawson had been having some very bad luck, and was willing to walk away from the horse racing business altogether. Reed knew how to get Dawson a point back in the right direction.

“I told him, ‘You need good luck not spending a ton of money,'” Reed said. “I knew we had to claim some young horses, win, and let him see the joy of being a winner.”

That was the second moment: when Reed and Dawson first laid eyes on Rich Strike. They had been looking for lightly raced 2-year-olds, and Rich Strike, who competed at Ellis Park in Henderson, Kentucky, fit the bill. Racing on turf last August, Rich Strike ran dead last, but Reed could see that the horse had more skill on dirt. So he put in a $30,000 bid for the horse before a race on September 17 – at Churchill Downs, just to add to the fairy tale – and Rich Strike dominated the competition.

Reed took Rich Strike to his Mercury Equine Center in Lexington, where the horse could be trained in peace. Mercury is the horse at Reed Shangri-La, a large, quiet training area with space for a five-lane track, a cold horse spa, and paddocks to let the horses run free when their training is over for the day. Reed bought the center in 2005 after many years on the road away from his family, and it soon became a haven for him as well as his horses.

“I thought I had reached the pinnacle of my career,” Reed says. “All the barns were full. I had very good clients. Things could not be better. I thought, I’ve done it. I have no hills to climb. All I have to do is keep up.”

And then he almost disappeared.

In the early hours of 18 December 2016, a fire, possibly caused by lightning, broke out in one of the stables. Rescuers managed to save some of the horses, but many others were lost to the flames.

“I can’t describe it, I never want anyone to see what we saw,” Reed says. “These were 23 dead babies, my horses, my children… Anger went inside. disgust. I never questioned the Lord, but I asked why. Why was I knocked down?”

In the hours after the fire, Reed thought it was damaged. “Everybody kept saying, ‘Don’t go out like this. You still have 65, 70 horses to train,’” Reed recalls. “I didn’t know if it was in my heart to keep going, man. It was so difficult, I thought I would never be able to get over the hurt of what happened. “

That was the third moment leading up to the Kentucky Derby victory, the moment when Reed could have been given up forever.

A few days after the fire, with the wreckage of the barn still smoldering, Reed stood at the rail and watched other horses being trained. And understanding came over him.

“That love started to grow again,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘If you quit, those 23 horses died for nothing.’ At first I was just going to finish that crop. And then it got better. Every day, I look back on that day.”

His voice, raw from days of celebration and interviews, sounds strong. “I know how low the lows can be,” he says, “and I now know how high the highs are.”

He was already ahead of the game, and now he is playing with house money. That’s what happens when a long shot pays off 80-1.

May 7, 2022;  Louisville, KY, United States;  Sonny Leon aboard Rich Strike makes his first turn after winning the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.  Mandatory credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

May 7, 2022; Louisville, KY, United States; Sonny Leon aboard Rich Strike makes his first turn after winning the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Mandatory credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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